The black box squatted heavily on the rich carpet, crushing the soft pile, lumpish and out of place by the finely turned legs of the dressing table. Caroline turned the key in its heavy padlock; the hinged lid lifted easily. At first sight, it appeared to contain only sentimental trivia: pieces of old jewellery wrapped in scraps of silk, a pair of silver spurs, faintly scented gloves, yellowing lace-edged handkerchiefs. One by one, she lifted them out gently, touched by these mementoes of another's life. She opened a leather case which emitted a strange, undefineable odour; it was stuffed with notebooks and pamphlets, all pertaining to the psychic arts; there were a few phials of some malodorous substances that were obviously the perquisites of black magic. She closed the case hurriedly and set it aside.
Poor Aunt Millicent! What wonders had she dreamed to work with this meagre paraphernalia? What revenge had she planned with the tiny doll-figures? There were other, more romantic souvenirs: a silver-tipped quill, a few faded roses, a satin slipper, a sheaf of old letters, a bundle of invitation cards, faded favours worn for one-time lovers. Then there came a flat package wrapped carefully in tissue paper. Caroline unwrapped the packet. It was a small portrait in oils. Two little girls, decked in all their finery, posed under a blossoming apple tree. The portrait was unsigned, but the artist showed some considerable talent and had painted his subjects with loving and meticulous care. The portrait had been appreciated and well preserved. The faces were clear and fresh; the eyes looked out, hopefully, on an unexplored world. Their innocence was touching. One girl, the elder, was unmistakable; even at fourteen or so, Millicent Picton was handsome, determined and intent. Alert and energetic with slender, capable hands, she seemed built for riding to hounds with the best, or handling the reins of her own destiny. The other fair, pretty girl with dreamy eyes and streaming hair smiled sweetly through the dappled light from wide, innocent eyes that saw no struggle ahead, nor seemed prepared to meet it. Yet her serenity had a power of its own ..... like Lucy's. That luminous, untroubled smile was to bind Turlough O'Shaughnessy, the soldier-adventurer, with a bond stronger than steel.
Tears sprang to Caroline's eyes. This was treasure, beyond dreaming. She had never known such a portrait had been painted. She sat on the floor, the picture cradled in her hands, tears on her cheeks. In her ears the sea throbbed below Dunalla's rock. She saw the knight in full panoply, the lady on the ramparts waving farewell. She knew, now, why such a picture had seemed feasible. She had known very little of her parents' romance. Everyone, even cynical old Bridget, said it was the perfect love affair. But there must have been pain ..... and farewells ..... and loneliness. Maybe Turlough had been as casual as Nick Marsmain. Maybe the smiling girl had seen the bitter side of her dream. Like Lucy, she would betray nothing.
This portrait must hang where she could see it from her bed ..... above the chest where one of Lady Ballinmore's watercolours now hung. She had never liked that picture very much; in front of a large, smudged-in house that might have been any house, a shadowy child stood, stiffly posed, her hand placed on a large dog's head. Maybe it was the late lady's notion of herself as a child. The picture was not easy to detach from the wall. It was, in fact, the front-piece to a small door.
Her fingers touched the spring accidentally; the door opened to reveal a hidey-hole, something that was quite common in wealthy homes for storing valuable jewellery and private documents. It was lined with sandalwood which gave out a delicate odour. It appeared to be quite empty but, as she fumbled around inside, she felt the back panel move. Soon she discovered how it worked. Behind that detachable panel there were three inner compartments. In the first of these she found a large, rusty key; she laid it aside. The second compartment was empty except for a few scraps of yellowed manuscript. In the third, her fingers touched something familiar. Unwrapping the tissue in which it was folded, she caught the pale shimmer of gold. It was the missing thigh-band. It lay in her hands like a ring of living light. The very touch against her skin was like the beginning of music in her blood. To unheard music, she danced, barefoot about the room. She made no sound on the thick carpet but was so rapt in her own delight that she did not hear Maureen knock.
“What's up, Miss Caroline?” Maureen asked. “Sure I thought you were in bed.”
“Not yet. I'm glad to see you. Look.”
“I see you opened the box.”
“I found this portrait ..... my mother.”
“Isn't she the lovely little girl? My
granny used to talk about her. She used to brush her hair. You'd be sittin' on the floor, listenin'
an' her talkin' about the gran'
balls in Paris, an’ the lovely ladies an' the handsome men in uniform. She
talked about the Queen of
“The world can be cruel to lovely ladies. Poor mother!”
“An' poor Miss Lucy, an' her as lovely as any.”
“And a better life before her, let us hope. Maybe the luck will be on us all now. I found my ring.”
They talked for a long time, going through Millicent Picton's keepsakes. Maureen helped Caroline fit on some of the faded finery that filled the rest of the black box. They tried to imagine on what occasions Aunt Millicent had worn such grandeur. Among the things may have been a gown or petticoat worn on that night when Turlough had betrayed her. The thought touched Caroline. She wanted to play no more games.
At last, she was alone with the bundle of ribboned love-letters. She had no mind to open them; they must be burnt, unread. But there was one sealed envelope at the bottom of the pile. It was in Millicent's hand and addressed to the three O'Shaughnessy sisters. She unsealed the envelope. It was a long script crammed with good advice. She skimmed through it quickly. The last paragraph arrested her attention: “Within you will find the last letter your mother wrote to me. It concerns you. I think you should read her own words.”
Caroline unfolded it with trembling hands. Her mother's fragile script was like ghost writing; she hardly dared read. Yet it was easy enough. To Millicent, her mother had committed the charge of mothering the girls, “whom I have so shamefully neglected, particularly the youngest who has had so strange and wild a childhood. She is so beautiful, I fear for her, lest her heart be broken by some unworthy man. Pray, take care of her when I am gone, my dear sister.”
There were many loving expressions of concern, all of which touched Caroline to the heart; her tears flowed freely as she perused the letter; she could hardly decipher the words. Till she came to the latter part which was written with a new quill in bolder hand. Its message was brief and incisive:
“I have noticed how Caroline clings to her brother, Fergal, and how devoted he is to her. Had things been otherwise, I should have been happier. I think they were made for each other ..... that one day, they should marry. I should like that better than anything; that is why I have decided to reveal the secret I swore never to reveal. Fergal is not Caroline's brother. He is the son of a kinsman of my dear Turlough. He died in battle, before he had opportunity to wed the French girl who carried his child. Turlough took his kinsman's place, accepting paternity of the child. He had him brought up as his own son. He never told anybody but me and I swore never to tell. But I must tell, for the sake of my own child's happiness. If Turlough is still alive when you disclose this secret, I know that he will understand why it was necessary. He would never do anything to distress me, even though I were dead. He always loved me, as I love him; in death I shall love him ..... and after death ..... and I love the three lovely daughters that sealed our love. Tell the true story, Millicent. You have suffered, but you have always remained loyal to me. Give my darlings my love.”
“Fergal not your brother. Fergal is not your brother.”
The words echoed through Caroline's brain even as she slept.